I am really excited for this upcoming garden season. I am always excited about Spring (today I was actually tidying my snowy herb garden in winter gloves), but this year feels different. Mat and I have spent the last ten years learning how to grow and preserve food, expanding and learning more every year. In this last year, our goals for our land and our lives have become a bit clearer. We have taken more time to really consider where we want to focus our energy, and that includes which plants are most valuable and beneficial to us.
We have recently tweaked our diet to include more anti-inflammatory foods and avoid foods that cause inflammation. Mat has inflammatory arthritis, an autoimmune disease, and I have lived with chronic asthma since childhood. Unfortunately, our eldest daughter has also been diagnosed with asthma and our youngest has shown early symptoms.
Watching your children suffer in any way is heartbreaking. We have seen paediatricians, allergists, doctors, and emergency rooms, and taken a few scary ambulance rides. This has give me new perspective and compassion for what my own parents went through. We have learned a lot along the way – most importantly that we no longer want to feel helpless when it comes to our children’s health. This has led us to become more proactive in how we manage our own chronic illnesses.
One way we have taken charge of our family’s health is through our diet. We have found that when we eat a mostly gluten free diet with minimal cow dairy and an abundance of anti-inflammatory foods we experience fewer symptoms, we have more energy and we feel our best.
Eating well can be expensive! We do spend a lot on food because we consider it to be an important investment in our health. However, we don’t have a large budget. To live by our values and stick to our budget while supporting our health, we make a lot of food from scratch, buy direct from farms, and grow and preserve as much fresh produce as possible.
I have been growing food for over 10 years. We currently have a 1000 square foot fenced in vegetable garden (deer!) as well as a 500 square foot garden for medicinal and culinary herbs and edible perennials as well as a few other scattered gardens for garlic, squash, potatoes, herbs, and flowers.
The gardening lifestyle is positive in general for fighting inflammation – moving your body, eating fresh food, and the meditative nature of connecting with plants.
It is a good idea to tailor your garden plans to what you actually eat and enjoy and your dietary requirements. Whether you have allergies, follow a Paleo or Keto diet or want to fight inflammation in general, or simply don’t like certain foods, you should plan ahead to get the most out of your investment of time and energy.
I am by no means an expert in nutrition, but I have learned a few things about inflammation and diet, and have planned this year’s garden with this information in mind. I know that inflammation is the root of so many diseases and discomforts for many people, and so I hope this inspires you to consider growing some of this beautiful medicine.
I love growing plants that have edible roots as well as tops. Beet root helps fight inflammation and beet greens support the immune system – and both are packed with nutrients. Beet greens actually contain more iron than spinach! Beet root is so versatile – you can roast or steam it, grate it raw in salads or juice it, and even bake it into chocolate cake! I love to grow heirloom varieties (I buy my seeds from Incredible Seeds) for their flavour and beautiful colour.
The antioxidants in berries reduce inflammation and boost immunity. Also, kids think they are such a special treat. We spend as much time as possible in Summer picking berries with our children. I’m a fan of family activities that are fun and productive (with built in snacks). We visit u-picks and forage for blackberries and wild blueberries, and this year we will have more berries to forage in our own yard. The highbush blueberries we planted two years ago should produce this year, we are expanding our strawberry patch and have newly established raspberry canes. We also plan to plant cherry and goji berry trees. Perennials are a great investment!
A cruciferous vegetable, bok choy is a triple threat against chronic inflammation. It contains antioxidants, omega 3 and vitamin K, making it one of the most anti-inflammatory foods you can grow! It is also possible to grow bok choy year round in our climate with season extenders like polytunnels and cold frames. It is actually tastiest in colder months. It is great in stir fry, pickled or fermented, or in an Asian inspired soup.
Another cruciferous vegetable from the brassica family, broccoli is one of those vegetables that tastes completely different fresh from the garden than what you are used to from the grocery store. I find it totally satisfying to grow – my only problem is I can never grow enough. You can also harvest it in the Spring/Summer and again in the Fall, if you time your planting right. It is packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which make it worthy of an entire bed in my anti-inflammatory garden plan.
It has taken me a few years to grow a respectable crop of carrots, but I think I am finally on my way. They are a bit fussy to germinate, require specific soil conditions and we eat a lot of them, so it difficult to grow enough for our family. They contain antioxidants and vitamins that fight inflammation and are especially beneficial when juiced. My go-to recipe for juice includes beet, carrot, apple, kale, and ginger. It makes me feel amazing!
To grow garlic is to grow medicine! Garlic is such a powerful plant and has been used for centuries to treat everything from gangrene to cancer. We use it a lot during cold and flu season, and I am proud to say that after a few years of replanting, we are self-sufficient in garlic. Garlic has amazing anti-inflammatory properties and compounds that stimulate the immune system and fight against disease. Plus, it is a culinary staple. To get the most benefits, eat it raw or close to raw – try thin slices between apple slices or steep it in a tea with honey – and when you cook it, don’t overheat it.
Eat your greens! Green is my favourite colour and dark leafy greens are a staple in my kitchen and my garden. Even my kids will eat kale raw straight out of the garden! My favourites to grow are lacinato kale and rainbow chard because they are so beautiful – you can even stick them in your flower garden as ornamental plants if you are low on space.
Steamed chard with lemon, kale smoothie or juice, savory kale chips, greens au gratin – everyone can find a way to enjoy them. Try adding a poached egg and feta or parmesan to a simple steamed green salad and you have a delicious immune boosting meal.
We are super passionate about herbs and plant medicine around here, and Mat leads the way with continual research and sourcing. We expanded our herb garden in a big way last season – now we have to get a handle on harvesting, preserving, and actually using the herbs we grow. Some anti-inflammatory culinary herbs that we grow are basil, mint, sage, rosemary, cilantro, parsley, and thyme (also great for respiratory support).
Other medicinal plants we grow are mullein, dandelion, chamomile, echinacea and the list keeps growing as the gardens expand!
I have recently discovered how fascinating mushrooms can be! I listened to a podcast a few months ago – Paul Stamets: Mushrooms and the Mycology of Consciousness – that blew my mind wide open to the world of fungi. (He also did a popular TED talk called 6 ways mushrooms can save the world.) Learning to grow mushrooms will be one of Mat’s projects this year. Some mushrooms with anti-inflammatory properties that you can cultivate at home include Oyster, Shiitake and Lion’s Mane – and you can purchase these spawn and take workshops from PuraVida Mushrooms right here in Nova Scotia.
Rhubarb has powerful anti-inflammatory effects, and luckily it is abundant in Nova Scotia. Almost every garden has a rhubarb patch tucked into some corner, like a hidden treasure. If yours doesn’t, you could raid a friend’s garden or pick up a bundle at your local farmer’s market in Spring or Summer. One of my favourite things to make is rhubarb syrup, which you can mix with soda water to make a refreshing drink on hot days. And who doesn’t love strawberry rhubarb pie or rhubarb tart with custard?
What about Nightshade vegetables?
The nightshade family of vegetables includes some of our garden favourites – tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. Every year we try to increase our tomato yield and last season we grew 75 pounds! We also grew way too many potatoes – several hundred pounds. We suspect that the increase of potatoes in our diet over the winter may have contributed to our health issues.
There isn’t enough evidence to support a definite link between nightshade vegetables and increased inflammation, but they do trigger inflammation and cause immune reactions for some, especially those with arthritis. Confusingly enough, some actually have anti-inflammatory properties, like hot peppers and tomatoes.
We have decided to limit these foods in our diet for now, and so we plan to grow less of them this year. When it comes to our diet, we aim for moderation and variety, so unless we discover an allergy or sensitivity, we will continue to grow some.
This year, we will focus on cherry tomatoes, blue potatoes and fingerlings, and hot peppers.
Incidentally, tomatoes and potatoes are a lot of work, especially when blight and pests are an issue, so I expect this shift will save us time and allow us to focus our energy on the best food for our diet.
I’m so excited about this year’s garden plans! It feels good to be moving intentionally towards better health through family time spent in the garden. We are truly happiest when we are all working together outside in the garden.
Have you noticed health benefits from a change in your diet? Has it changed what you grow in your garden? What foods are you excited to grow this year?